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French Flag at Arc de Triomphe

France: From Paris to the Riviera

Introduction

French Flag at Arc de Triomphe

Two years after getting married my wife and I finally found time to go on a proper honeymoon! The decision to choose France as our honeymoon destination came naturally as France offered everything we would appreciate in an adventure: Legendary cuisine, excellent variety of photographic opportunities, and of course being the romance capital of the world (I know it’s a cliché, but why not go for the gold?).

On our 16-day adventure we wanted to spend at least a week in Paris since this was our first time visiting France, and spend the rest of our time “sampling” different parts of France at a relatively leisure pace (we wanted to smell the roses too!). Cote d’Azur (French Riviera) emerged as an ideal second destination because it combined relaxation with an excellent public transport system. Upon departure our itinerary looked like this: Paris (7 days) -> Avignon area (2.5 days) -> Nice (5 days) -> return to Paris for our flight home (we did not have a daily itinerary because getting lost had led to many amazing surprises throughout our travels in the past).  Unlike our trip to China, my wife’s semi-fluent French turned out to be an extremely important asset.

AND… For the first time ever instead of staying at hotels we rented private apartments for both Paris and Nice… as for Provence… we opted to let fate decide our fortunes.

  1. Paris:  Love, Lights, Memories
  2. Provence:  The Relaxing Countryside
  3. French Riviera:  Sunny Glitzy Cote d’Azur

Itinerary

16-day France Itinerary Overview (exact route not shown due to Google Map limitation)

Conclusion

Our honeymoon took us from the French capital all the way south to the French Riviera.  Despite my frequent complaints about France’s scorching heat it was only a minor nuisance during an otherwise perfect honeymoon.  From Paris’ hypnotizing night lights and Provence’s rustic country allure, to Cote d’Azur’s lively atmosphere… combined together to form an once in a lifetime experience.  In addition, the legendary cuisine and limitless photography opportunities helped strengthen my favorable impression of France.

From our travel we brought home several souvenirs including wine and Pastis, but little did we know we returned to Canada with the most precious souvenir anyone can imagine: I am going to be a daddy!

I love you wall Montmartre

Paris: Day 7

September 4th, 2013 – Sunny

WEDNESDAY MARKET, PANTHEON, LUXEMBOURG GARDENS

For the second time this week a large market was underway underneath the elevated railroad on Boulevard de Grenelle and we were determined to participate this time around (the market was right outside our apartment). This busy market sold everything from fresh produce, seafood, cheese, all the way to baby clothing; and judged by the market population it was evident that many locals gathered their ingredients from these markets. We happily browsed through all the stands and we ended up acquiring both our brunches and some souvenirs. (French melons = looks like cantaloupe but sweeter = heaven; don’t buy baked goods from markets because they are likely not as fresh as store baked croissants).

To top off our breakfasts/lunches we took the metro all the way to “Cité” station so we could enjoy the “best ice cream in Paris” on Ile Saint-Louis at a shop called Berthillon (and to make good on my promise). Once that sugary goodness touched our lips it made the 10 minute trek through the scorching heat worth it. (Aside: a particularly disturbing scene occurred at the metro station where one “bum-looking” racist man screamed and spat at an oriental lady, then jumped the ticket turnstile… my fists were clenched and I was ready to lay a beat down if he made a move towards my wife and I… luckily for him he didn’t)

We got off the tranquil residential island, crossed the river, and navigated through to the lively Latin Quarter. Latin Quarter was a youthful neighborhood being situated in proximity to academic institutions. The hike uphill to Pantheon was particularly unpleasant because it felt like I was being slowly roasted by the midday sun… alas… 1 bottle of warm water later we arrived at our intended destination. However, we ducked into yet another church called Saint-Etienne-du-Mont which was directly adjacent to Pantheon because: 1) it was close, 2) it was shaded. This church was extremely well maintained and quiet, but also quite typical in terms of its external/internal appearence.

Across the street the Pantheon stood alone in the middle of the square. We knew very little about this landmark but from its exterior it seemed like some sort of state or government building. The lobby/main foyer of Pantheon was decorated tastefully with impressive stone/marble columns and wide-open floor spaces (even during renovations). However, the true purpose of this building turned out to be hidden from the foyer… Pantheon functioned as a secular mausoleum for distinguished French citizens such as Victor Hugo and Pierre/Marie Curie! (amongst numerous names unfamiliar to my wife and I).

A 10-15 minute walk away was the famous Luxembourg Gardens. On our way to our next destination we had little choice but to retreat into a familiar but air-conditioned restaurant called McDonald’s due to the overwhelming heat. (Yes we went to McDonald’s in Paris the culinary paradise). We then proceeded to the Luxembourg Gardens which was only a few steps away.

In my opinion the Luxembourg Gardens was more like a park rather than a garden… granted there were a few well maintained flowerbeds but the majority of the space was dedicated as “leisure space”. With much difficulty we finally found an empty park bench and quickly realized that those park benches were empty for a reason. About 10 meters away congregated a large group of ethnic individuals (~50 people?) whom were obviously from a less fortunate social-economic background (most of them didn’t have shoes nor proper clothing… I thought French had robust social programs?). We later vacated that park bench because they were so obnoxiously loud…

We concluded our day back at Montmartre (where we began our Paris journey) because we were too jetlagged to enjoy this artsy district on our first day. We visited a small church close to the metro exit as well as the “I Love You” wall (le mur des je t’aime) which unfortunately were both disappointing. However, Montmartre offered an entire street full of shops where we were able to purchase some cheap souvenirs. On the metro back to our apartment we stopped at a couple interesting stations for some photo ops (see picture of the Concorde station on the left). We hit the local bar 1 block from our apartment for some happy hour booze amidst locals to conclude our fantastic week in Paris… and who knew even random pubs would serve such good chicken gizzard + foie gras salads?!

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Eiffel Tower and its powerful revolving light

Paris: Day 6

September 3rd, 2013 – Sunny

PETIT PALAIS, MUSÉE RODIN, E.T, ARC DE TRIOMPHE


Eiffel Tower and its powerful revolving light

Our time in Paris had gone by so fast!!! With only two full days left in the city we only visited 1/3 of the attractions on our list… but since my wife and I were having such a fantastic time we decided to maintain our pace knowing that we would miss out on a few attractions.

Our agenda took us to the Grand Palais which was a highly-rated attraction on guide books and travel websites. Upon arrival we were greeted kindly with closed doors (of course museums close in the middle of the work week – Wednesday!). Instead we traveled 100 meters across the busy avenue and found the Petit Palais – to our relief the lights were on.

The Petit Palais was a quiet and marvelously maintained museum. Although we were completely museum-ed out at this point of our trip it was difficult not to admire at all of those priceless paintings and sculptures. We were able to enjoy each artifact and sometimes entire exhibits in absolute peace… which was a refreshing contrast to the frantic pace of the Louvre and Musee D’orsay. However it was the intricate interior of the museum itself that wowed me the most – especially the mosaic-tiled floor and those cast iron spiral staircases.

After Petit Palais we visited one of the most extravagant bridges in Paris: Pont Alexandre III which was only a stone’s throw away. The white, black, and gold decorated bridge was lined with classic Parisian lamp posts on either side and it was extremely well maintained – minus some fresh graffiti on its railings. (personally my favorite portion of the bridge were those steel support beams on the underside of the bridge). After our brief stop at Pont Alexandre III we once again proceeded on foot toward our next destination: Musee Rodin.

We had no idea who “Rodin” was and our decision to visit this museum was purely based on fantastic reviews from TripAdvisor. The leisure walk from Pont Alexandre III took us through a business-oriented neighborhood where we stuck out like a sore thumb in a sea of suits and business attires. Our walk also took us through countless packed restaurants which reminded us that it was indeed lunch time. As we walked into a “suitable” aka air conditioned restaurant we were severely under-dressed… until 3 construction workers walked through the door… whew lol. 2 hours later we emerged happy and refreshed, and I also found a new love for chicken gizzards. (I ordered it accidentally since our free iPhone French dictionary wouldn’t tell us what gésier meant unless we upgraded to the full version… lol…. hmmm.. salty goodness)

Musée Rodin was a comparatively smaller museum that housed numerous sculptures by a supposably famous artist called “Auguste Rodin”. Rodin’s works were scattered throughout an immaculately manicured garden that was rivaled only by the Palace of Versailles. Groups of local artists could be seen translating their favorite iron/stone sculptures onto sketch pads. Impressed by its garden we headed into a mansion where smaller/less weather resistant/delicate masterpieces were stored. The contrast between the garden and the main building of Musée Rodin was shocking to say the least. Even though the artworks were undeniably inspiring, it was difficult to look past the squeaky & uneven floors and the general state of disrepair of the building. Upon our exit from the main building we headed down a narrow path where an unusually large amount of tourists congregated… then eureka! Instead of being a mystically famous sculptor named “Auguste Rodin”, I finally gazed upon a piece of work of which I can identify with! I was staring at The Thinker!

As we departed Musée Rodin I was still proud of myself for being an art aficionado (for knowing The Thinker… lol), we walked past a grand-ish looking church called Basilica of Sainte Clotilde. We were the only visitors at the time of visit (it was a work day and I don’t think this church was a tourist attraction) and it was obvious that the basilica would benefit from some minor restorations. However, its hardened “demeanor” reasonated with me and I ended up appreciating this simple church much more than some of its more famous counterparts. An impromptu soccer game had erupted at the tiny square outside of the church and we were greeted by a flying soccer ball as we exited from the basilica.

Throughout the day… actually throughout our stay in Paris we noticed the popularity of the citywide bike sharing program called Vélib’. These grey-bronze cruiser bikes were everywhere in Paris and I (not my wife) wanted to try them out since day 1. A few minutes on the automated terminal and a minimal fee later, we were on our bikes! We cruised for approximately 20 meters until my wife got too scared to travel on the busy Paris roads/sidewalk… so we walked our 50 ton tanks bikes to the next nearest Vélib’ station which was only a 5 minute walk away. From there we took the subway back home even though it was only around 4PM because we had a romantic evening planned!

A bottle of cheap wine, a couple of plastic wine glasses, two sandwiches, and assorted desserts in my backpack later we were back on Vélib’ bikes riding toward… that’s right we were going back to the Eiffel Tower hahaha. (Ironically the package of plastic wine glasses were more expensive than the wine, which was 1.80 euros LOL… it was important to J that we stayed classy with the cups). The bike ride on Blvd de Grenelle wasn’t as scary as anticipated due to a dedicated bike path, but we were on high alert for those crazy French motorists anyways. Once we dropped off our bikes around Trocadero we found a shaded patch of grass, fanned out our tiny bamboo mat, and enjoyed an inexpensive yet romantic picnic dinner staring at the Eiffel Tower. By the time it was cool enough to wonder off again the sun was low enough on the horizon where everything was blanketed in a warm orange hue… giant water cannons also went off in an hourly interval at Trocadero (worth seeing). We spent 2-3 hours at “Place du Trocadéro” chatting, photographing, and being silly until the sun was no more. From there we proceeded on foot for 25 minutes towards the Arc de Triomphe through quiet residential streets and by the time we reached our destination the sky was pitch black.

The Arc de Trimophe was an EXTREMELY busy traffic circle where 12 main roads intersected. The arch trumped all other surrounding structures in terms of height and grandeur, and sometimes flashes of white strobe lights would sparkle at the roof – those lights turned out to be camera flashes from crazy tourists thinking they could illuminate the entirety of Paris using their camera flashes (photo tip – most camera flashes have an effective radius of < 3 meters, so taking night landscape photos with them would essentially give you a completely black picture… so turn off your flash and use a tripod or have steady hands). To our relief there were underground tunnels to access the Arc de Triomphe, and similar to the Notre Dame bell tower we had to hike up a long spiral staircase in order to reach the top (there was 1 elevator for the less physically abled). Due to the fact that it was late at night (an hour before closing) and it wasn’t peak tourist hours, there were no lineups at the counter and it was quite enjoyable at the top with only a handful of other tourists. The view from the top was so spectacular I was grateful (and still am) to have had such dumb luck to visit during night time instead. The panoramic view of Paris was illuminated by golden lights with bone straight major avenues extending from the arch to the peripherals of Paris. I was able to look straight down the busy Champs-Élysées, then to my right was the imposing Eiffel Tower and its rotating beacon, and behind me lied La Défense with its skyscrappers and the Grande Arche. In fact, I enjoyed the top of Arc de Triomphe much more than the Eiffel Tower strictly in terms of the view (just like why we went up the Rockefeller Center to marvel at New York rather than going up the Empire State Building). The eye-gasm presented to us at the top of Arc de Triomphe was further sweetened by the hourly Eiffel Tower light show (during the latter part of the show I snuck to the abandoned sides of the viewing deck to do some quick photography projects :P).

P.S. Make sure to spend a few minutes looking down at the traffic circle and witness the chaos and horrors of French driving – there were no lines or anything on the road… it was simply cars weaving in and out at “inappropriately” high speeds… yet no accidents, just lots of horns.

We walked down Champs-Élysées and realized that it was nothing but a busy and glorified shopping district. Since we had zero intentions of buying thousand dollar handbags I was finally able to persuade J to give Vélib’ another try (we were also out of metro tickets haha). After we navigated away from Champs-Élysées the streets were fortunately quiet, and we slowly made our way back home zigzagging through Parisian neighborhoods. For some reason there was something magical and romantic about strolling through quiet Parisian streets on unpredictable beater bikes… the 45 minutes it took us to get home was my absolute favorite portion of our honeymoon. (to avoid extra fees we changed bikes half-way through the trip because only the first 30 minutes were free… and we got lost a little bit haha).

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Beautiful sunset at Louvre

Paris: Day 5

September 2, 2013 – Sunny

Ile De La Cite, Pont Des Arts

Usually one of the first chapters in most Paris guidebooks, Ile de la cite was where Paris originated and thus it was full of historical must-visits. How did it take us so long to visit the heart of Paris? We simply fell in love with the Eiffel Tower (we just somehow kept on returning to those steel beams).

For some odd reason, even metro rides were fantastic experiences in Paris… every metro station seemed to have its own flavor and history. We arrived at metro station “Cité” via metro line 1 and we began our historic tour with a leisure walk around the petite island for some river Seine breezes.

As we walked counter-clock wise along the water we realized that we were in relative peace! For a buzzing metropolitan like Paris how were we so alone in the historic epicenter of Paris?… The tranquility lasted for approximately 10 minutes until we reached Pont Neuf (or “New Bridge”, which ironically was the oldest standing bridge across the river Seine). We quickly vacated the area because to be honest the bridge didn’t look that impressive up close (Pont Neuf did look impressive from a distance, try viewing it from Pont des Arts).

We reached our first destination “Conciergerie” which was a former royal palace as well as a prison. Like many structures around Paris, each landmark had served multiple purposes simply because of Paris’s rich history. The entrance to Conciergerie wasn’t well advertised with a very short queue line, and initially we did not plan to visit there until we were at the entrance (it was included in our museum pass, so why not?). The interior of Conciergerie was dim (fitting as a prison), but the grand hall was majestic none-the-less with a beautiful array of stone arches. The short self guided tour then led us through a few sample jail cells, one of which housed Marie Antoinette before her execution some 200 years ago.

A short distance down the street was Sainte-Chapelle and it came highly recommended by a co-worker as well as Tripadvisor. Entrance to the church was expedited by our Paris Museum Pass but the regular lineup was only ~50 visitors long. Upon entry we were directed into a tiny chapel dominated with a blue ceiling and petite stained glass windows. Needless to say we were extremely underwhelmed until we realized that we were only in the lower chapel! My less-than-ideal impression of Sainte-Chapelle quickly reversed as we ascended the narrow staircase which took us to the main chapel. The main chapel was surrounded by 12 gigantic stained glass windows and each window must’ve been 3-4 stories tall. Even though Sainte-Chapelle lacked the square footage in comparison to other famous chapels/churches found throughout France, it did not feel crammed because I was too busy admiring at the rainbow-colored artwork. I found the interior of most churches to be all-too-similar during our trip and I had a tough time differentiating one from another in my mind… except Sainte-Chapelle. The entire chapel basked in a surreal multi-colored cast from these stained glass “walls” and they created a truly unique experience. (At the time of visit 5 out of 12 windows were boarded up for renovations, but the view was still unforgettable… imagine the light from all 12 windows!).

By the time we emerged from Sainte-Chapelle it was well past lunch time. Our hunt for food took us off island to the opposite riverbank because most eateries on the island were either over-priced or blatant tourist traps. On the way back to Ile de la Cite a two-hour lunch later, we passed several curb-side kiosks iconic to Paris with Notre Dame as the backdrop.

Notre Dame was arguably the second most famous landmark that represented Paris (The Eiffel Tower = #1), and the amount of tourists was absolutely insane. The queue to Notre Dame was intimidating but the lineup moved swiftly and we were inside the church within minutes. The interior of Notre Dame was dominated by grey stones with an impressive stained glass rose window similar to the churches we had visited previously. Perhaps it was due to the fact that I wasn’t religious (no appreciation for religious paintings/artifacts), or maybe because we had just visited Sainte-Chapelle a couple hours before… Simply put, I did not think Notre Dame deserved its iconic status (but I shouldn’t complain since admission was free). Despite the free admission, I found Notre Dame to be over-commercialized with gift kiosks and souvenir dispensers (inside the church!) = an overall negative experience unfortunately.

As we exited Notre Dame we quickly jumped into a second queue for the bell tower on the left side of the church. Unlike the main church, entry to the bell tower cost $$$ but it was included in our pass so it wasn’t an issue (either way it was inexpensive… less than 10 euros). The queue itself was only 50-60 people long but we waited for approximately 1 hour. (FYI – The bell tower visit is NOT wheelchair friendly and may be difficult for elderly or obese visitors)

Upon admission we passed yet another gift shop (at least this one was empty since it was exclusive to the bell tower visit haha). We bypassed the gift shop and headed straight for the spiral staircase. The stairs probably took us 5 minutes to hike up and I heard several tourists struggling/complaining toward the latter portion of the trek. The view from the viewing “deck” was enjoyable (well worth the wait) as it offered a fantastic view of Paris flanked by the river on both sides. The viewing area was basically a one-person wide path along the edge of the bell tower and thus created a potential problem: I would be super frustrated if there were always visitors behind me pushing to get ahead. My solution? Stay behind everyone else (think like a photographer lol). The stone gargoyles along the roof-top were interesting, but the most intriguing part of the visit (aside from the view/photo ops) was to see the power of weather corrosion over hundreds of years.

I thought our bell tower visit concluded when we circumvented the bell tower. To my surprise there was another viewing deck at the top of the bell tower = MORE STAIRS! The staircase became narrower and the steps became child-sized as we ascended to the very top of the tower. There were two major differences between the 1st and 2nd level: 1) Everything looked tinier, 2) The top was very spacious VS the 1st level… otherwise everything else was similar. The descend down the stairs took approximately 5 minutes and it was somewhat hard on my knees. As we exited Notre Dame half dazed from the spiral staircase we saw a bride & a groom taking wedding photos at the square in front of Notre Dame! I felt bad for the groom because I was already sweating in a thin T-shirt, let alone a 3-piece tuxedo!

We had planned to visit the tiny island “Ile Saint-Louis” directly adjacent to Ile de la Cite, and apparently my wife had been fueled by my promise of “best gelato/sorbet in Paris”. We (by we I meant me) decided against sweet Italian treats in favor of thirst quenching golden bubbles so we postponed our gelato plans for a later date and instead we parked ourselves at a local pub… a few 1664s later we were off to our last destination of the day – Pont des Arts.

As we approached Pont des Arts the bridge sparkled silver and gold as the setting sun reflected off a sea of locks left behind by lovers across the globe. A Parisian co-worker informed me of this tradition and I came prepared with a combination lock. (the original tradition: Write your names on the lock; secure the lock on the bridge; and throw the key into the river… I didn’t want to pollute the river so I decided to bring a combination lock instead. There were copious amount of street vendors selling pad locks so don’t worry if you’re not prepared). 100000 brownie points with this romantic gesture later the beers kicked in and we were off in search of washrooms.

According to Google Maps we were near the back of Louvre and since we had museum passes we could use the washrooms at the Louvre! When we arrived we were shocked to see the main courtyard of the Louvre so empty… something was odd… Of course it was Tuesday which meant the Louvre was closed! (however the lobby remained open = washrooms were available = happy wife). We took full advantage of the relatively empty square in front of the Louvre for some fantastic photos in the setting sun. We then metro-ed back to our apartment to rest our exhausted feet and turned in early.

(Aside: It was hilarious how attractions and restaurants in France would close on random days… Usually some day between Saturday-Tuesday. Please do your research in advance because there were numerous occasions where we arrived at an attraction/restaurant only to find that they were not open for business that day. Going out for food/ supermarket on Sundays? If you are away from tourist areas don’t even bother lol).

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Palace of Versailles golden interior

Paris: Day 4 (Versailles)

September 1st, 2013 – Sunny

Versailles + Eiffel Tower

Woke up today around the same time (9 AM) but the scenery outside our apartment changed drastically. Usually a quiet street, Boulevard de Grenelle had transformed into a buzzing open-air market selling everything from baby clothes to the freshest produce every Wednesday and Sunday. Unfortunately we did not have time to check out the market as we were already running behind for… Versailles!

We made our way to Champ de Mars/Tour Eiffel Station for our RER C connection to Versailles [Tip: Buy a return ticket on your way to Versailles in order to avoid long lineups at the Versailles station on your way back. In addition, there are several destinations for RER C so make sure you board the correct train heading for Versailles Rive Gauche (or “Versailles” on the monitor)]. It was only a 25 minute train ride from Paris to Versailles, but it was nice to catch a glimpse of the suburbs of Paris (In France, graffiti were extremely common on the walls of train tracks, abandoned buildings, tunnels, and many public properties… more on that in a separate post).

Versailles was one of the richest cities in France and it was evident from the 5 minute walk between the train station and the Palace of Versailles: well maintained buildings devoid of graffiti. We purchased sandwiches and refreshments on our way to the Palace because judging from the amount of tourists on the train it would simply be frustrating if we were limited to purchase food from the palace cafeteria. There were two long lineups when we arrived at the palace: one to purchase tickets and the other one to get in. We were able to bypass the tickets queue since admission was included in the Paris Museum Pass , but the queue for security check remained intimidating (there were probably 2-300 people in the lineup). Luckily, the security check was quite efficient (never thought I would say that about France lol) and we only had to wait for about 20 minutes.

With audio guides strapped around our neck (which were free by the way) we embarked on our journey through the Palace of Versailles along with several thousand visitors. Initially we were herded through a series of rooms taking us through the palace’s history, after which visitors were free to roam through rooms and halls at their own pace. The palace was overwhelmingly luxurious with antiquities, crystal chandeliers, and ceiling paintings covering every inch of the palace. As we proceeded onward through different halls we would often find a bigger chandelier, or a more lavish decoration than the room before. This obvious flaunt of wealth culminated in the grandiose Hall of Mirrors where golden walls, countless chandeliers, and matching windows/mirrors combined together to inspire awe. After having visited the Hall of Mirrors the rest of the palace became ordinary and paled in comparison.

We were quietly laughing inside when we walked past the ground floor cafeteria because the line up was absolutely monsterous. Access to the palace gardens required a separate admission fee today because it was a “musical fountains show” day. In other words, for 8.50 euros per person one could enjoy the gardens with music playing in the background (fountains were operational only at specific times). For the first time at the palace we were able to find a relatively quiet spot away from other tourists where we consumed our delicious sandwiches in near isolation (it was amazing how the most ordinary sandwich could taste so good… only in France).

The gardens at Versailles can only be described using one word: Ginormous. There were several options available for visitors to tour the gardens with limited time: Bike/golf cart rentals, and mini-trains to transport tourists to popular attractions around the grounds… for a moderate fee of course. Since we had the entire day scheduled for Versailles we opted to casually stroll through the gardens instead. The music was a pleasant addition but it was hardly worth the admission fee. We gathered near the edge of “Basin d’Apollon” and by the time the fountain show was about to begin there were about 1-2000 people around us.

The fountains started right on time to more up-beat music (not elevator background music like before) to everybody’s excitement. However, after patiently waiting for 3 songs worth of music it was apparent that the water fountains were static and the “fountain show” was simply having the fountains turned on. Disappointed from our expectations we visited several other smaller fountains (one of which was a dancing fountain but quite small in scale). We then abandoned the fountain shows all together and headed toward the smaller royal palaces/private royal residences (Grand Trianon & Petit Trianon).

The walk from the main palace to Grand Trianon was about 30 minutes and the walk itself was lovely with manicured shrubberies/well-groomed trees along the paths. The further we walked away from the main palace the more locals we seemed to encounter… we soon figured out the reason why… the outer gardens were accessible by car! (there must be another entrance somewhere). The Grand and Petit Trianons were beautiful to look at from the outside, but to be honest the interiors were underwhelming. There was a significant difference in the state of upkeep between the exteriors and the interiors of the building; combined with the fact that we had just visited the Hall of Mirrors less than an hour ago, contributed to our lackluster attitude for the Grand and Petit Trianon. Our memorable Versailles day trip concluded with a casual stroll back towards the main entrance near sunset.

An uneventful train ride later we were back in Paris once again. Our hunt for dinner took us to a posh eatery called “Pottoka” where we had one of the weirdest, most polarized meal ever (for me it was possibly the best meal I had in Paris, whereas it was the worst food in the entire trip for my wife… she was not into gastronomy at all). When we finished our meal it was only 10:00 PM and we didn’t want to turn in quite yet, within seconds we were on our way walking toward our favorite location in Paris: The Eiffel Tower. (We visited the Eiffel Tower almost every day we were in Paris)

We originally planned to go up the Eiffel Tower during daytime. Since we were at the site already and unlike during daytime there were no line ups nor 2 hour waits for the elevators to the viewing platforms, we arrived at the lower viewing platform within minutes. (One could also hike the stairs for the lower platform, and since we walked the entire day at Versailles already = elevator!) The lower platform was busy, but WOW the panoramic view was so spectacular that it simply made us forget about everyone around us. When we woke up from the mesmerizing Paris lights ten or so minutes later, we realized that people WERE actually disappearing around us and tourists were emptying from the viewing platform: It was getting close to closing time! We bought tickets to the upper viewing deck as well so we quickly queued up for the second elevator to the top. It turned out that we were one of the last visitors to the top deck that night because they closed the queue shortly after us. The view from the upper platform was similar to the lower deck but with a stronger breeze. The changing lights from Tour Montparnasse; red and white lights from street traffics; dim orange street lamps illuminating the bridges on River Seine as well as the city itself, created an unforgettable image that will be cherished for the years to come. The fact that we enjoyed such scenery in near isolation made our experience infinite times richer.

We stayed at the top for as long as possible and we were ushered back down on the last elevator for the night. Our evening concluded with one final Eiffel Tower light show (where the entire tower sparkled) until the landmark went dark at 1 AM.

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Iconic clock of Musee D'Orsay

Paris: Day 3

August 31st, 2013 – Stormy & Overcast, then sunny

Musee D`Orsay, Louvre, Eiffel Tower

I discovered “pain au chocolat” when buying croissants for breakfast today. Pain au chocolat was basically a square croissant with a little bit of chocolate stuffed inside = Heaven! I also had wine with breakfast for the first time in my life (leftover from last night’s bottle I swear…) The weather forecast was less than optimal because rain was predicted to last the entire day. We were going to take the train to Versailles but we adjusted our plan to visit another museum that was highly recommended by guidebooks instead: Musee D’Orsay.

Musee D’Orsay (M.O.) was converted from an old train station located on the riverfront and it housed numerous impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces. M.O. was deceivingly large with numerous galleries and sub-floors – we originally anticipated a two-hour visit but we ended up spending more than 4 hours there and we only covered about half of the museum. By the time we reached the 2nd floor we were exhausted and luckily there were full sized sofas where it was comfortable enough for visitors to nap in! Right next to the sofas was a gigantic clock window left over from M.O.’s train station days which was quite photogenic in my opinion. Highlight of the museum included countless sculptures, paintings from Monet, Renoir, and of course Vincent Van Gogh (the reason why I wanted to visit and stay in the town of Arles was because of his painting “Starry Night”). Once we exited the museum we suddenly realized that it was 3PM and we neglected lunch again. There was a sandwich shop near the exit of the museum (an obvious tourist trap but we didn’t care) where we purchased the last two sandwiches available + a 3 euros Orangina. The sandwiches were happily consumed on the steps of Musee D’Orsay while a local Jazz band filled the air with fantastic 50’s music (bad sandwiches don’t exist in France).

After calming our hunger we visited Louvre across the river where I retook some photos that turned out to be out of focus from the previous day. One of the advantages of the Paris Museum Pass was that we could revisit any participating site we wanted repeatedly (highly recommended for Louvre and Musee D’Orsay). The weather seemed to be turning for the worse as wind grew stronger and light rain started to coat the dry ground. The changing weather also brought some much welcomed relief from the supra-30s heat; however, the dip in temperature was short-lived as the wind made short work of the rain clouds.

As we slowly made our way back towards the 7th arrondissement on foot along the bank of River Seine (we wanted to visit a particular restaurant recommended by friends called “Les Cocottes de Christian Constant”… reviews to come at a later date), several rest stops were needed to rest our achy feet (I told my wife to wear comfortable shoes, but apparently looks > function still held true). The riverbank was quite lively with street vendors, street performers, wine/beer bars, tourists, and locals all enjoying the breezy riverfront. Bikes were also a common sight along the banks (and really they were all over Paris) and that was when I first took notice about the citywide bike rental program called Velib’ (more on that in a separate post later).

It took about 40 minutes to walk from Louvre, along the riverbank, to our destination restaurant. Since the restaurant did not accept reservations our brilliant plan was to get there early to beat the dinner rush at ~5:30 PM. Our brilliant plan fell flat when we realized that most restaurants in France opened at 7 PM for dinner service… what should we do for the next hour and a half? With the Eiffel Tower in plain sight towering over the typical 4-5 story French buildings that surrounded us, we bought a cold beer along with some ice cream bars at a corner store and headed for the Paris landmark. We returned to the restaurant shortly before 7 PM where we enjoyed our first proper 3 course meal in France (first of many). We concluded our evening walking past the Eiffel Tower once again on our way back to our apartment.

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View from top of Galleries Lafayette

Paris: Day 2

August 30, 2013 (Sunny)

Louvre Area, Galeries Lafayette, Eiffel Tower

After a solid 12 hours of sleep we woke up around 9 AM (we made it a rule to minimize alarm clock use while traveling… why do people join tours that start at 6:00 am anyways? That’s worse than a work day!). Today we had our first ever Croissant from Paris from a neighborhood Boulangerie (bakery). [Tip: In France there are differences between Boulangeries and Patisseries (one which sell baked goods such as baguettes – Boulangeries, whereas patisseries specialize in pastries)]. As per my wife that croissant was the best croissant she had ever had (a phrase which would be repeated almost at a daily interval haha). To accompany my croissant breakfast I headed to a supermarket around the corner for milk (a routine maintained since I was a child) only to find milk on a normal shelf and NOT stored in the fridge… milk with a 3 month expiry?!?!?! that’s CRAZY! It tasted delicious nonetheless.

Due to the excessive heat (30 degrees Celcius) we decided to start off our day in an air-conditioned environment so off to the world famous museum Louvre. This giant museum was world-renowned for having one of the largest collection of priceless treasures from around the globe. Amongst the treasures were paintings such as Mona Lisa by Da Vinci and sculptures such as Venus. Unfortunately all these artifacts/antiquities also attracted copious amount of art admirers to such an extent where Louvre’s long queue became almost as famous as the artifacts it housed. There was an underground entrance directly from the Palais Royale/Musee du Louvre station that rumored to be generally less busy, and when we arrived the queue was virtually non-existent. However, once we reached the lobby we experienced the hoards of tourists that were notoriously mentioned by all guide books/internet forums. The Louvre was so busy (especially the Denon wing which housed Renaissance paintings and the Mona Lisa) that it was nearly impossible to enjoy each display. After a couple hours of crowd surfing (and my wife was getting tired of translating art history since most signs were in French only) we decided to revisit the Louvre at a later date. My impression of the Mona Lisa: the painting itself was way smaller than I anticipated and to be honest I didn’t like the painting at all… but the shift in artistic style that stemmed from Leonardo Da Vinci’s work is undeniable… feel free to comment on my travesty.

It was way past lunchtime by the time we left Louvre and we were on the hunt for some food. We walked aimlessly down narrow streets past countless open-air cafes and restaurants while we marveled at unique French architectures. Even though we were on the lookout for food our eyes were constantly overwhelmed by the architectural details around every street corner. Near the end of lunch service we were able to find a local restaurant that was still open for lunch (French restaurants are required by law to display their menu around the entrance) where we enjoyed our 2 course meals. After lunch we went across the street and visited the famous patisserie “Stohrer” where we bought one of the most intricate pieces of cuisine art called “Puits D’Amour” that was just as delicious as its presentation. On our way to Palais Royal we stumbled upon a photogenic traffic circle which I later found out was called “Place des Victories”. Once we reached Palais Royal we enjoyed our food art at “Jardin de Palais Royal” surrounded by local families soaking in the sunshine.

Somehow we found ourselves around the Louvre once again. More specifically, we were standing underneath the Arc du Triomph de Caroussel and we were stormed by illegal street vendors selling miniature Eiffel towers (it was hilarious how fast they flee from Police, and more humorous how fast they return after the policeman evacuated the area). As a Claude Monet fan we headed straight to the Musee de l’Orangerie which housed some of Monet’s famous panoramic water lily paintings and it was only a 7 minute walk from the Louvre. The museum was quite petite with only 2 rooms displaying the panorama paintings, but I loved this miniature museum because the quieter atmosphere allowed me to enjoy the artwork in relative peace. After hours of walking (even with new runners!) our feet were protesting from our abuse and the Jardin des Tuileries adjacent to the Museum offered a perfect pit stop with green metal loungers freely available. In fact we ended up spending over 45 minutes conversing and people watching while an amateur trumpet player was practicing in the background.

Since we did not reserve any restaurants in advance, many Tripadvisor’s top-ranked restaurants were unavailable during our trip (I was warned 1000s of times to make reservations but I was too lazy, and I didn’t want to commit to any restaurants since I didn’t know whether we would be in the area until the day before… Having a flexible schedule allows me to adapt our itinerary (mostly to weather/work closures, etc) and usually leads me to interesting travel stories that I am able to share on here). I remembered Lafayette Gourmet mentioned in one of the Parisian food blogs and it was only a 20 minute walk per Google Maps so we started our trek northwards. The reason why we tried to walk everywhere instead of taking the metro was because Paris offered so many photography opportunities that would be otherwise wasted if we traveled underground – I encourage all visitors to do the same.

By the time we reached Galleries Lafayette (which were two large buildings… one dedicated to ladies and the other one for men) we went into the ladies building to do some window shopping, and window shopping we did because the prices were 2-3X more than what we would deem reasonable in North America! The interior architecture of Galleries Lafayette was jaw dropping (it was only a department store afterall!) with gold-painted walls matched with a multi-colored stain glass dome that would rival the grandest church (I guess it was a shopaholic’s church haha). We kept on ascending the seemingly endless floors until we reached the rooftop lookout. It was sunset by the time we reached the top and since today’s weather was similar to yesterday’s, the entire city basked in a photogenic golden glow with Palais Garnier (Opera House) directly adjacent to us and the Eiffel Tower in the distance (if you want a romantic spot to take your girlfriend/fiancée/wife for some brownie points… go there). We were politely encouraged to head back downstairs around 8 PM (closing time) and since Lafayette Gourmet closes an hour or so after the actual store, we crossed the street toward the men’s building (where the Gourmet food court was located on the 2nd floor). A bottle of wine, gourmet breads and pastries later we were on the metro heading back to our apartment.

As a romantic post meal walk around the neighborhood we visited the Eiffel Tower at night (a major perk for staying in the 7th arrondissement… Eiffel Tower was only a 10-minute walk away) and to top off the night there was an organized outdoor ballroom dancing party in Trocadero!

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Crowded Sacre Coeur at sunset

Paris: Day 1

August 29th

Vancouver to Paris + Sacre Coeur

After a surprisingly good long distance flight with Air Transat we arrived in Paris!!! (Air Transat was simply superior to Air Canada in every way + why didn’t I invest in noise cancelling headphones 5 years ago?? I was able to catch a few quick naps on a flight for the first time ever). I guess because Air Transat was a discount airline we weren’t taxied to the main terminal, and instead we were ushered to Terminal 3 by shuttle bus once we got off the plane. My body was immediately assaulted by a blast of hot and humid Parisian air as we stepped off the air-conditioned cocoon. (Us Canadians do not deal with heat too well… OK fine it’s just me). Terminal 3 of Charles-de-Guille airport was like Tyrion in Game of Thrones (Tiny and ugly, but functional). The mini-terminal was already congested when our shuttle bus arrived and we weren’t allowed off the shuttle for 10 minutes while we slowly baked… or shall I say sous-vided (We were in France afterall haha) in the bus cabin. Baggage delivery was probably amongst the slowest of all the major airports I’ve visited.

Trains headed into the city depart from either Terminal 1 or 2. After a longer than expected walk we arrived in Terminal 2 (the main terminal?) which actually looked like a real international airport. We purchased a 6 day “Paris Museum Pass” for ~70 euros per person from the tourist information kiosk at gate 12. We also purchased RER B tickets from the same kiosk for the train to get into Paris (it was about ~7 euros per person if I remembered correctly). The RER station was easy to get to but then reality struck… the world did not revolve around me and I couldn’t find a word of English in any of the signage (honestly good for the French to stay French). Luckily this time around (unlike when we traveled to China lol) my wife was able to put her semi-fluent French to use. Even with my wife’s French abilities the directions were still not as informative as they should for first-time travelers to France like us. There were multiple platforms and there were minimal indications as to which train we should board. There were monitors with scrolling French words which we assumed were train stations, so we jumped on the next train since our transit station appeared on every monitor (later on we found out we were on the express train). [Tip: In France there are “long” and “short” trains (short meaning fewer cars than usual). If you see the word “court” (meaning short) on the monitor, follow indicators on the platform to position yourself to where the “short train” will stop at.]

The Parisian train/metro system was gigantic and convenient with 15 metro lines + 6 RER lines that serviced the entirety of Paris and beyond. With our RER tickets we were able to transfer to our destination via metro line 8 without additional fare with relative ease. Slightly jetlagged we reached our apartment secured from AirBnB (first time ever) in the 7th arrondissement. The studio-apartment was not much bigger than a hotel room – small in North American standard but probably considered average-sized in a buzzing metropolitan like Paris. The apartment was extremely cozy and we will not hesitate to repeat our stay there upon our next visit. After we settled in we scouted around the neighborhood looking for bakeries (for my wife) and groceries stores. Hilariously enough we found 4 bakeries within a 200 m radius from our apartment and we sampled every one of them in the upcoming week. Determined not to waste our day we hopped onto the metro towards Abbesses for Sacre Coeur after purchasing a package of ten metro tickets called “le carnet” (slight discount compared to buying individual tickets). Parisian trains were not air conditioned and could get quite uncomfortable at times, however compared to New York the stations were very well ventilated (New York… probably the worst subway system I have encountered). [Tip: Doors of French trains do not open automatically upon arrival… one must either pull a lever or press a button (from inside or outside) to open doors.]

The Montmarte area was full of life with artists and street-side cafes similar to the Kitsiloano neighborhood in Vancouver. In order to reach Sacre Coeur which was situated at the top of the hill one must either embark on an easy 3 minute climb via stairs or there was a tram service that would transport tourists up the mini-hill for a small fee (maybe a 30 second tram ride?). There is a reason why Europeans have a longer lifespan/healthier when compared to North Americans in general, they walk everywhere! So unless there are truly some physical disabilities HIKE THOSE STAIRS! I passed a 70 year old local making the short climb, and yet I saw overweight middle-aged tourists pouring out of the tram… WTF.

The view from Sacre Coeur was amazing as it offered a panoramic view of the city. We arrived close to sunset on a beautiful sunny day so there was an amazing golden hue that blanketed the city… What a first day impression! (from the ghetto Paris airport terminal to a golden panoramic view of the city.. what a turnaround!). Having visited many cities considered world class (New York, Hong Kong, London, etc), Paris was strikingly different because the city’s architecture was so historic and well preserved. Instead of being screened by skyscrapers only to have taller skyscrapers lining the horizon, Paris’s cityscape was dominated by 6-7 story buildings that extended vast into the horizon.. LOVED IT! Behind the awe-inspiring cityscape lied Sacre Coeur which was a dominating marble white catholic church. Sacre Coeur, like many famous European churches, was awe-inspiring when we first stepped foot into its interior. Its sculptures, stained glass windows, marble columns and floors, along with its historic significance, made the visit unforgettable (possibily because we simply don’t have the history nor these historic monuments in North America). Unfortunately we were losing our battle with jetlag and we headed to Snooze-ville at the conclusion of our Sacre Coeur visit.

P.S. After our trip I found out from a close friend that you could actually go up to the top of Sacre Coeur for fantastic views of the city… I missed the opportunity but I would encourage readers to explore this place further!

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